Sunday, August 13, 2006

Everything Looks Nicer in the Rear View (Post-Uni)

"I'm alright with the way that I've become
I've paid my dues, I'm ready for whatever comes..."

Ben Kenney, "Inside, Pt. 2"

You know the people who say that it's the journey that's important, not the destination? Fuck them. They don't know shit.

People who can say that without any sense of irony are usually the people who ended up in a favourable destination, the circumstances of which they can use to go back and rationalize their journey as being worthwhile.

Busting your ass in a band and hauling your gear in a van for a few years while slowly building a fanbase and eventually achieving all the musical success you desire (whatever that level of success may be) is laudable. Doing the same thing your whole life and never getting anywhere is depressing.

Starting out as a factory worker and grinding your way up the ranks is an inspirational story. Starting out as a factory worker and never getting past entry-level is a waste of human potential.

The point is, people bust their asses along the journey, with the hopes that they arrive at the destination they're looking for. Sometimes they get there, most of the time they don't.


May 1999.

Upon recovering from my habanero-induced illness, I took stock of my situation:

  • $40 to my name
  • no job
  • no leads
  • no car
  • no driver's licence
  • new city
  • no bed
Literally, the only things I had were my guitar, a suitcase full of clothes, two blankets and two pillows. I was crashing on my buddy's ancient pullout couch, the kind with the springs and bars that reorient your spine while you sleep. Not only did I not have a job, but most of the large employment firms deemed me unemployable because of my very odd set of particular and disparate skills. Ironically enough, those same skills are paving my way to executive management as we speak.

So, using my last $40 to find enough sustenance to last me as long as possible, I ventured to the neighbourhood grocery store which, convienently enough, had a Help Wanted sign posted in the window. Well, it was a start. I might have been considered unemployable in the office world, but damn if I didn't have more than enough experience to get me that job. Figuring that lump in my throat proving really difficult to swallow was only my pride, I marched into that store with every ounce of false confidence I could muster and basically begged for the job.

I stated that I thought that my five years of experience and supervisory skills far outclassed whatever employees they had currently working at the store, and I was right. The stockroom was a mess (I was responsible for organizing the stockroom once a week at my old job), their dairy case was full of expired product, and the shelves were empty while there was stock collecting dust in the back. Upon looking at the store, I went and bargained for $10 an hour. The store owner didn't buy it, but he said that since he was going to pay me $6.50 an hour, he'd meet me halfway and pay $8.25.

I told him that I needed any money I could get, but that I wouldn't stick around at $8.25 an hour. After all, in my last year at the old store, I was making $11.50, and I'd gotten a university education since then. So I gave him my business proposal:

"You and I both know that as soon as I get a halfway decent job, I'm out of here. So here's what I propose. Your store is a mess. If inspectors walked into your dairy case, you'd be busted. No one can find anything in your stockroom, and your student workers haven't been properly trained. (After all, he was a businessman who had bought a franchise - he wasn't a qualified store manager, and the person he had hired to do that needed training himself). I can come in a few nights a week and maybe a day on the weekend to get your store in shape, but you have to leave me my days off so I can find a real job. If I can't find a decent job within a few months and if you like what I can provide you, you can hire me full-time and I'll run your store."

Upon hearing me talk, he knew that he was in trouble and needed what I could provide badly. So for 22 hours a week (3 five hour weeknight shifts and one 7-hour weekend shift), I did what I said I would: I cleaned up his dairy case, trained his student staff (who weren't at all lazy, they just didn't have a clue what they were doing), washed his shelves, reorganized his stockroom and even found the time to train the store manager on a few things, like how to provide proper customer service, how to set up promotional displays, and how to position product so it would sell better.

It wasn't long before my efforts were noticed. My roommates, who were scared to shop at that store before, commented on how much better it looked. The owner was happy, but I was frantically looking for another job.

After trying to find work at a bunch of employment agencies, one agency finally found me an entry-level administration job at a lease financing company. Thank God I'm bilingual (I speak and write English and French fluently), because that's the only reason I was hired - their old bilingual admin clerk quit, and they didn't have anyone capable of interacting with the dealers and sales staff from Quebec. Well, I wasn't exactly setting the world on fire, but it was a start. The salary: $12 an hour., at 35 hours a week. I went into that job with the biggest chip on my shoulder, especially once I met the complete tools I had to work with. Even though it was more money, it wasn't enough to quit at the grocery store. It was especially difficult to deal with, considering that my last student job (admin assistant to the chief librarian) paid me a government subsidized $13.25 an hour.

So, for all you math majors, I was up to working 57 hours a week, with an average wage of a shade above $10 an hour. A four-year honours student, second in my class in a professional vocation. Had I stayed at the old store in my home town, pay increases would probably have gotten me up to about $18 an hour, and I'd have been pulling a solid 42 hours a week.

So, had I decided at that point to cut my losses and beg for my old job back in my hometown (which I had given more than a passing thought to, but the store had switched management, so I didn't have any goodwill built up). The way I saw it, I could break off my long-distance relationship (with the girl I eventually married), move back into my parents' basement, start work at the store again, squirrel away some money to buy property while it was on the cheap (my hometown's major industry was cyclical, so many permanent residents had gotten rich buying low and selling high repeatedly), probably marry some failed cheerleader and spent my life working up to store manager and wondering whether that was all there was to life. My town was filled with people who had grown up waiting to get out, then saw that there were fish in the big pond far bigger than they were, and eagerly swam back to their goldfish bowl.

Had I done that, there's no way that I would have figured the "journey" was worth it, because I would have poured 4 years and $40,000 into an education that would have gotten me exactly where I had already been.

Fortunately, I stuck it out, but it wasn't easy. How did I do it? That's an entry for next time, boys and girls...


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